The promise of Seattle was captured in an antic moment observed by one young environmental activist. Amid broad ranks of protesters, he saw that a squad of activists dressed as sea turtles was marching alongside members of the Teamsters union. “Turtles love Teamsters,” the turtles began to chant. “Teamsters love turtles,” the truck drivers replied. Their call-and-response suggests the flavor of this loose-jointed new movement–people of disparate purposes setting aside old differences, united by the spirit of smart, playful optimism.
The corporate-political establishment doesn’t get it yet, but sea turtles and Teamsters (with their myriad friends) can change the world. This popular mobilization, disparaged as “Luddite wackos” by the prestige press, is still inventing itself, still vulnerable to the usual forces that can derail new social movements. But its moment is here, a rare opportunity to educate and agitate on behalf of common human values. Among its tasks, this new movement can excavate the human spirit, buried by a generation of arrogant power and a brittle-minded economic orthodoxy.
So what’s next for turtles and Teamsters? The World Trade Organization’s failure at Seattle (gridlocked on commercial disputes, oblivious to the reform agenda from the streets) has inspired a new organizing slogan: “Fix it or nix it.” The WTO is the visible symbol of globalization, and the network of forty country-based campaigns that produced Seattle is working now on when to stage another international day of action.
The US coalition is, meanwhile, gearing up for another crucial fight: blocking Congressional action that would give China a permanent “good housekeeping seal”–instead of annual approval of most-favored-nation status–as it joins the WTO. Any genuine reform of the global system becomes far more difficult if China is to be treated as a “normal” trading partner–one reason business is so anxious to win this one.
Beyond immediate battles, this new movement will sustain itself and grow powerful only if it goes on the offensive–that is, if it can tell a positive story about how the world will look if its values prevail. It can do this with hard facts about the present realities, facts that blow away the establishment’s smug abstractions. It should propose concrete legislation–reform laws to be endorsed at the community or state level and enacted by Congress. Not after years of diplomacy, but right now.
What follows is a rough draft of what this national legislation might look like (based on conversations with some leading activists and my own reflections). The central principle is that Americans have the sovereign power to impose rules on the behavior of their own American-based multinational corporations (notwithstanding the WTO’s pretensions). Congress did so in 1977 with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits corporate bribery in overseas projects. That law was passed in response to public outrage over repeated scandals revealing that major US companies were buying foreign governments. Human abuses present in the global system are far more grave than business bribes.
Since it’s obvious that the WTO and other international forums have no intention of acting, Americans really have no moral choice but to assert responsibility. After all, random brutalities in the production system are done in our name and to our benefit as consumers, shareholders, company managers. As the United Students Against Sweatshops has demonstrated, when people learn the facts, moral revulsion follows. Famous brand names find themselves confronted by what they have long denied.